Mixing with reality
Adelaide graduate Adrian Cheok gets mixed results from his research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore - and he couldn't be happier.
Dr Cheok started and heads the Mixed Reality Lab, a high-tech research facility which broadly aims to improve the way humans communicate with computers.
Dr Cheok, who was born and raised in Adelaide and graduated from the University of Adelaide with a Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical and Electronic) in 1992 and an Engineering PhD in 1998, heads a research team of more than 20 Nanyang staff and students and is regarded globally as a pioneering figure in the Mixed Reality field.
Among his many awards and accolades, he was the Singapore Young Scientist of the Year in 2003, and the Singapore Young Professional of the Year in 2004. He also holds the title of Associate Professor with two different Schools at Nanyang: the School of Computer Engineering, and School of Art, Design and Media.
"Mixed Reality has a different focus to Virtual Reality, which is the one that everyone associates with computer interaction," Dr Cheok says.
"Virtual Reality removes you completely from your real environment and puts you in an entirely virtual one. What we do with Mixed Reality is combine, or mix, the virtual and real worlds together so the user's experience is that much more vivid and enhanced.
"The way we communicate and interact with computers is still the same as it was in the 1980s, with the keyboard and monitor being the main interface: you punch something in on the keyboard and the results come back to you via the monitor.
"Mixed Reality is all about trying to change that interface, by making our use of computers as natural and user-friendly for us as possible."
A project which showcases the Mixed Reality concept and has attracted attention from around the world is Human Pacman. As the name suggests, it is a human version of the popular 80s arcade game.
It features users clad in wearable computers (in the form of backpacks) and special goggles playing as "Pacmen" or "Ghosts" in a real environment.
"The Pacmen in the game see the little cookies and the glowing energy pills through their goggles - if they eat the energy pills, for a short time they are able to 'eat' ghosts, which they do by tapping them on their backpack," he says. "A ghost can also eat a Pacman in the same way, by tapping them on the backpack.
"What we've also done is add the role of Helper, who can take part in the game through the Internet. By equipping each of the players with a GPS, we can track their movements and in real-time translate this to a two-dimensional space which can be viewed on the Internet."
"So you could be across the other side of the world and watching a real-life game of Pacman - and as a Helper, you can also message or text the game players to advise them on their next move or that someone is about to eat them."
Other Mixed Reality Lab projects are no less novel.
Poultry Internet allows humans to interact with poultry remotely and in real time. A chicken, housed in a space with multiple webcams, wears a special electronic "jacket" which, when activated, creates a sense of being touched. The human has a chicken "doll" which is wired to the chicken's jacket and moves accordingly. By stroking the doll, the human can use a computer to see how the real chicken responds via the webcams.
Human Electronics allows users to communicate digital information simply by touch. For example, by each having a particular "chip" inserted in their shoe, users can transmit their business cards or small JPEG files into each other's chips just by shaking hands.
"What I really like is that the applications of Mixed Reality are so broad," Dr Cheok says. "It can be incorporated into just about any aspect of someone's life, and the interest we've received reflects that - for example, we've produced things for Singapore schools and the Singapore military.
"We're really only just starting to scratch the surface of what Mixed Reality is capable of, and it's a really exciting time to be involved with it." ■
Story Ben Osborne